We awoke to bright headlamps in our faces. “Finally we won’t have to deal with you guys tearing up the trail anymore!” It was Jeff Oatley and his crew, leading the race, and being sarcastic (I can’t help but think our tracks helped them through the tripods). It was 5 am, or so. I can’t really be sure since I had no way of telling time out on the trail.
I was dead asleep. It was the first night it hadn’t snowed. With a giant puffy sleeping bag, warm clothes, hot meal in the belly and plenty of layers and packs with which to build a pillow, winter camping is cush and comfortable compared to summer bikepacking. I’ve had some of my best camp nights sleeping out in the cold.
Except that Oatley woke us up! After a few groggy minutes, somebody said, “well, who’s going to say it?”
“Shall we hit it?”
We awoke to a world of pure white. Even more white than what we had been pedaling through for the past several days. Too cold and too harsh for trees to grow, views of huge mountains instead.
What’s that? A little color in the sky? The weather is clearing, and just in time.
I was promised miles upon Alaskan miles of walking in the snow. I expected that nearing Rainy Pass, my time would finally come. But, no, with clown bike tires, legs full of energy and primo trail conditions, the pass was nearly all rideable. The wind was hardly even blowing. Temperatures mild.
It was almost too easy. Given all the stories of the uselessness of bikes on the Iditarod Trail, it was quite a surprise to find that bikes were not only worthwhile, but the *best* form of transport out here. Little did I know how good it was going to get on the other side.
We snuck past minor avy slide piles, through some deep and unrideable drifts, making our way slowly down from the pass, all while stopping and attempting to take it all in. I didn’t want to leave this place too quickly.
As the canyon narrowed into the Dalzell Gorge the trail turned into, well, there’s just no other way to say it but: the best snow biking trail I have ever had the pleasure to lay tire on.
clown bike in AK expedition mode
We coasted past frozen waterfalls, ducked and dived in and out of trees.
Crossed ice bridges over rushing water. Pumped sled moguls and held on to slippery banked corners.
Saw colored ice, dividing our attention between staring at it, wondering if it was real, and making sure we stayed on the trail.
This is not a landscape I am familiar with.
I don’t understand how running water freezes and thaws, forms ice shelves, cracks and falls, then refreezes. I have never seen anything like this before. I am not sure it is safe to be here, and the awe and mystery of it all pulls me, pulls me into the great unknown that is Alaska. The only thing pulling harder is gravity. The trail is so fast and flowy it doesn’t just feel like mountain biking, it *is* mountain biking. We lose nearly 2000 feet in 10 miles.
Mike is astounded at the condition of the trail and the snow. Brian and I can’t believe we are ripping down a hard packed trail in the middle of Alaska. This is supposed to be hard, not fun!
The gorge spits us out onto the Tatina river, and I prepare for a boring and slow slog.
musher drop bags
But no, it’s Rohn! Already.
Pete (aka Moobs, aka Dreamboat) rolls in shortly after us and begins sorting through and giving away junk food from his drop. He doesn’t have enough mileage in his legs to be chasing in a pedaling contest, as good as the conditions are. But he’s still in good spirits and thinking he can pick some racers off. He informs me that Eszter should be along soon — he had ridden with her and seen her in Puntilla!
We got to hang out with the Iditarod volunteers that man Rohn during the dogsled race. It was clear this little outpost, which really only exists for a few weeks each year, is a special place with a lot of history. Jasper (next to me in the photo) has been a longtime volunteer and self-professed mayor of Rohn. He and Terry seemed a little lonely, wanting to talk to us and very appreciative of the extra candy we pawned off on them. Soon enough, Rohn would be a hub of activity.
Rohn was such a happy place. I only went in the tent briefly, just to see what was inside and look through the discarded racer drop food (didn’t take any). Bill and Kathi had kindly let us do half a drop (thanks again guys!), so my feed bags were overflowing and I was jamming as much candy into my mouth as I could. The day’s riding had driven the stoke meter to full, the views had captured my imagination, and to top it off, I had learned Eszter was crushing it. I was certain she would break the women’s record on the course. As a rookie!
In happy bliss mode, I dawdled at Rohn, half wishing Eszter would show up, and also enjoying talking to the ITI volunteer, Rob, another of the great characters of the trail. I was well behind Mike and Brian as I pedaled out onto the frozen and windswept Kuskokwim river. In places there was snow and a narrow line to follow across the ice. In others, only a glassy smooth surface. I pedaled cautiously and incredulously across the ice at first. Is this safe? Is this real? I had no idea there was anything like this on the trail. This is one of the coolest places I have ever ridden a bike! Keep going straight and do not lean!
I caught up to the guys, eventually, in the Farewell Burn. They thought I was ahead and had been chasing me.
Snow levels were already dropping, and the trail continued firm and oh-so-fun to ride, as the sun finally made its presence known, on the peaks of the Alaska Range behind us.
We crossed another frozen and windswept river, stopping to marvel and take photos. Mike told us about the time fierce winds blew him sideways across the ice, and how he watched shards of ice spray up from the screws in his boots as he slid. He eventually got his feet into a crack in the ice that he was able to follow to the shore and retrace back to the trail. Mike is one of the best in-person storytellers I know, and I was lucky enough to catch most of this one on video. I wish I had dozens of the other stories he told us throughout the trip, too.
Billy Koitzsch caught up to us as Mike’s story came to a close. Billy had studded tires, so was able to free-form it, giddily, on the slick ice. He’s on an ambitious journey that includes riding to Nome, Fairbanks and beyond. I enjoyed talking to him and noted the SPOT tracker on the front of his bike.
He shows up well in photos, too! Now in the dark shadow of the Alaska Range, temperatures were dropping and we were in a place that doesn’t receive much snowfall.
Some stretches were actually exposed dirt. I knew some dirt was likely and was looking forward to the mountain biking, but with the exception of some steep grunts (all rideable), nearly all the trail was snow covered.
Mike started shouting “BORING!” as we crossed another creek with an intact ice bridge, and approached the frozen waterfall that has given racers trouble in the past. There was a little berth of dirt and ‘trail’ beside it, making it an easy hike up. “How am I supposed to scare you guys if it’s all going to be this easy?!?”
Mike described flying down, in big ring, the descent around Eygpt Mountain on his regular MTB with 2.25 tires, the year he set a new record to McGrath. This year, it wasn’t dirt, but it was extremely fast and extremely fun. We dug into our pedals for the first time in the trip and really let it rip.
Darkness fell and the trail turned northwest for a very straight 40 mile stretch, but I barely even noticed. I was riding and loving it.
Mike checked his thermometer. “Already -10. I bet we’ll see -30 tonight.” I loved how nonchalantly he spoke of such temperatures.
We passed a couple racers after dark and the difference between racing and touring was unmistakable. We were pedaling fast, loving life, and warm with minimal layers on. The racers had puffy coats and face masks on, complained of cold feet, and were sleep deprived and processing things slowly. These guys, though not leading, were pushing an incredibly strong pace, sleeping minimally and destined to finish faster than the men’s record pace. Am I that bad off when I’m hammered and sleep deprived, racing? Could tourists come out of the dark and pass me like I’m standing still, wondering how I could be cold, or hot, or whatever else ails me. I think so. I know so. It only increased my respect for those brave enough to race this massive route.
We pushed it late into the night. Brand new reflective signs (Mike grumbled and called them shopping mall signs) told us we were 10 and 5 miles out from a Shelter Cabin. That shelter cabin was pulling Brian in like a magnet. I was pretty indifferent about it, wanting to actually experience a cold night, and knowing I’d be uncomfortable in a warm and stuffy building. But it was a good goal, and I was feeling the strength of the night. I think we were all a little spurred on by the racers catching us. Hard not to catch a little of the ‘go fast’ fever.
When I found out that the shelter cabin was a mile off route I decided I wasn’t going to sleep inside. I did go check it out, for general course recon, and to hopefully make a hot meal inside. The Runkle boys were already asleep in the cabin when we got there around midnight. We stumbled around quietly, making dinner while Brian and Mike looked for spots to lay down. I told them I’d see them in the morning and headed back the 1 mile to the trail.
Full moon trailside bivy in subzero temperatures! I was comfortable and warm, feeling full of life. I didn’t want to miss Eszter coming by, and was looking forward to seeing her.
A few others came by first, dressed warmly and riding awkwardly in the predawn cold.
She arrived with the first direct rays of sunlight I felt the entire trip. An appropriate parallel to her arrival in my life.
We sat in that sunlight, eating breakfast and sharing some highs and lows of the trail.
“Swamps are for ogres, not unicorns!” “I’m done with cold!” “I’m moving to Tucson!”
It was awesome to see her, and a bit surreal as well, to run into her in the middle of Alaska, this inhospitable and beautiful place. One that’s so inaccessible. I hadn’t seen her since Boulder. Sure enough, even though we had a two day head start, she had caught us!
Like the other racers we had seen, the drag of sleep deprivation, cold, mouth sores and general fatigue was weighing on her. After 20 minutes she was getting cold, so she hopped on her bike to continue the fight. It was my intention to not intrude on her ride and her experience, so I didn’t hurry to hop on my bike, or to try to catch her as the day went on.
Brian and Mike emerged from the cabin short-cut just as I had my bike loaded up and ready to go. The only problem? They had scored a bacon breakfast from the Runkle Brothers at the cabin. I hadn’t had time to cook anything. But I had plenty of trail food.
The trail to Fish Camp, then northeast, into the wind towards Nikolai, is not terribly exciting. It’s straight. It’s flat. There were occasional drifts as challenges, or to force a couple steps of walking. Behind us were big but fading views of the Alaska range, and even of Denali poking out of the clouds. I was so happy just to finally have direct rays of sun (all thanks to Eszter, I told myself)! I wasted time fiddling with my gear, tried to thaw my hydration hose unsuccessfully, before coming up with a better strategy for it. Brian did catch up to Eszter briefly at Sullivan Creek. He was smelling the finish at McGrath, though we didn’t have any chance of making it there before sunset.
We skipped Nikolai altogether, heading west onto the Kuskokwin River. This meant we had leap frogged in front of Eszter, who had to check in and was busy eating pasta in town.
I took the opportunity to write a little message in the snow!
The river was, for the most part, hard and fast. Good riding and less wind than earlier in the day. Without a GPS or concept of time or speed, it was such pleasant pedaling.
As the sun approached the horizon, my excitement grew. I was finally going to get to see an Alaskan sunset!
It was the golden hour, and the cameras came out to play.
So did the smiles. I told myself to savor it. I know sunsets, like so many magic moments in life, do not last long.
Team Photo will go to any length for the perfect shot, including going face first on cold ice! We all shot photos as though the colors and golden light were about to disappear.
Though I had noted the extended twilight throughout the trip, it had never been clear enough to really appreciate it. And it did not occur to me that our extreme latitude meant that, well, we would get a never ending sunset!!
We pedaled west, directly into it, for what seemed like two or more hours. I could not believe it.
How could this possibly be real?
Eventually Mike’s camera crapped out on him. We resolved that the time for photos was over. It was time to pedal and just enjoy it.
And that’s exactly what we did.
It did eventually get dark, and it dawned on us that we were still hours out from McGrath. I had been subsisting on trail food all day, having missed the bacon breakfast, and was getting hungry. I had my only tired/bonking/low moments of the trip, wanting to stop and not understanding what the pull to knock of more miles in the dark was. It was a tiny glimpse into the suffering and monotony of this river that many in the race got to drink deeply of.
We stamped out our last camp in the trees, some twenty miles shy of McGrath. Just as we were done laughing, playing with fire and eating dinner (I made three freeze dried meals and happily ate them all!), we laid down to sleep. Eszter came by not a minute later. I sat up in my sleeping bag and got to listen to an entertaining rant about the trail, the cold and wanting to be done. She was smiling through most of it, so I wasn’t worried about her. It wasn’t too far to the finish, even though in her mind it wasn’t 20ish miles, it was 200! “I’m so bored I can’t even think of anything to think about.” “I’ve been doing intervals out here, but even that’s getting old.” “Mike and I have very different definitions of what constitutes fun. I can’t believe some people [speaking towards Mike's sleeping bag] think going to Nome is a good idea!”
I’ve been there before, recognized it well enough. I knew she’d be fine, and she had plenty of time to get to the finish and still shatter the course record. Go Eszter! Part of me wanted to pick up and ride the rest in with her, but it was her solo endeavor, her race and her suffering to be done. You’ll have to wait for her to tell the story in her own words. It’s a good one. Her strength continues to impress me.
In the morning it was nice and cold. Perhaps -20 on the river? I knew it was cold, but cold is cold. Without a thermometer I wouldn’t have guessed it was actually that cold. I cooked a freeze dried breakfast and dinner and ate them both happily. Mike and Brian got out earlier than me, leaving me a solo ride into McGrath. I sat back on the seat, watching the frozen world slowly passing me by at 6 or 7 miles per hour. I was excited to see Eszter and hear all about the race, excited to gorge myself silly at Peter and Tracy’s legendary house in McGrath, but I was also a little sorry the trip was ending. It had been an amazing week on the trail. Seven days and six nights traveling through winter Alaska. I spent every night outside, and only a few hours indoors (eating!) the entire time. I hadn’t craved warm places or indoors like I thought I would. My bike and body had worked flawlessly. I hadn’t slowed Mike and Brian down or fretted about the cold, or any missing gear. I had found a way to thrive out there.
I had quizzed Mike about the possibility of continuing a couple more days, but there were no good options to fly out any time soon. I wanted a little more, and thought for a few seconds about joining him to Nome. Only a few, though.
Peter and Tracy’s lived up to its reputation and exceeded it. Their generosity at opening up their home to stinky and exhausted bike racers is remarkable.
And the food just keeps coming, like magic. What a place, and what a great time hanging out with like minded folks, exchanging trail stories and laughs. Eszter was pretty well fried, but had a new record under her belt and a blissed out state of mind. She had taken a big chunk off the record, something few thought a rookie could do in this race.
The next day I set Mike’s tracker up, and pedaled with him through town, back to the Kusko river. He was flying solo now, on with the next 700 miles of the Iditarod trail, to Nome. As of this writing he’s nearing Kaltag, more than 600 miles in, after having to take a break waiting for trail breakers in the ghost town of Iditarod. I was a bit bummed to not be joining him, but I knew that my place was back in McGrath, for now.
When do you ever get to fly back from a bikepacking race? Without boxing up your bike or anything! It’s the only way back… other than riding!
That’s McGrath. An airstrip and a few houses. The closest thing to civilization we’d seen in 300 miles on the trail, and totally inaccessible by road. Alaska. It’s quite a place.
Eszter is looking a little puffy faced from the exertion, but as cute as ever! She rode away from the airplane in Anchorage, only to be shut down by the employees. No riding!
We spent the rest of the weekend relaxing, eating, riding snow and celebrating her birthday together in Anchorage. A perfect end to what was a perfect trip.